Addicted to More

‘More’ addiction may be killing your teams’ productivity, your employees’ morale, and ultimately – your ability to compete. 

The need for ‘more’ is greater than ever.

If your team, your group, your org or your company doesn’t have more to do than they can possibly get done, then this probably won’t be very interesting reading for you. 

But, if you’re at all like me and the people I get to work with in many companies, you’ll agree that there is greater need than ever for ‘more’. Constant change in customer demands, competition, regulatory, social norms, technology capabilities, and other things translated into more needs for product and service development. At the same time, the current pile of work, quality issues in products and infrastructures, and the weight of processes all combine to make it harder to get more of anything done.

Most teams and people are signed up for more work than they can possibly get done.

I can count on one hand the number of organizations I’ve visited in which a majority of teams were signed up for what their actual (estimated) capacity was or less. For any new client we have, it’s with almost complete certainty that we can offer the observation ‘your teams are signed up for too much work.’ People usually agree, and there is little debate left when we look at the data. Yet, the pile of work continues to get larger and larger. The problem, however, is that they (even senior managers) appear generally helpless. 

Why is ‘more’ a bad thing?

Sure, stretch goals and pushing for a little more can result in good things (especially if they are driven by the team versus the manager). The ‘more’ I am talking about here is different – it is the systematic and repeated lack of prioritization and tradeoff that commits people and teams to far more than their capacity warrants even in the best case. There are a number of ways this kind of ‘more’ can be a bad thing.

1) Significant waste of time and effort. When we’re addicted to ‘more,’ we spend a lot of time on things that aren’t the most important or valuable. Consider your product demands – the list of things that are needed or have been requested. It’s probably very long. For every item on that list, we have lots of work that might get started. Things like:

  • Thinking about everything that’s needed for it

  • Holding meetings about it

  • Researching and designing it

  • Expanding upon what it means

  • Prioritizing it

  • Estimating it

  • Planning it

  • Reviewing and sharing the status of it (e.g., when will we get to it?)

Anything that makes it on to your plan (or backlog) incurs overhead for things activities like these. Any time spent doing these activities for things you won’t be able to get to is almost pure waste. Oh- and don’t forget to add the opportunity cost (the valuable work you could have done instead) on top of that.

2) Significantly degraded quality. When teams are asked told to do more than their capacity, they will do everything they can to get it done. Your teams are full of good people who really want to do a good job and be regarded well. So how can a software developer, for example, get more done than they are capable of normally doing? Answer: by cutting corners.  Don’t spend any time writing automated tests, or designing the code to be extensible or easy to maintain. Let good design principles fall by the wayside to get it done faster. Their managers aren’t asking them for quality- they’re asking them to get more done.

3) Significantly degraded employee morale and engagement. Got low engagement scores? Are people complaining about work/life balance, connectedness of their work to strategy, management’s ability to prioritize, and the like? Look no further than the amount of work they are committed to. When everything is important, then people are facing an endless, nearly indistinguishable pile of work to slog through. They won’t think much about coming up with options or use their creativity – because it doesn’t matter when everything is equally important.

4) Diminished ability to improve and learn. There’s no time for it. Good luck finding an hour in which to focus on improvement or learning something new – let alone a day. Any new practice or approach is introduced with so little focus and learning that little more than the language and terms are introduced. 

Note that all of these things are impacts – they are results that are only realized over time. Unfortunately, by the time they are realized it is far too late, and it has been far too long to remember what caused this problem in the first place. This is really important because when the pressure is on and there is too much to do, people will choose to do what has immediate results – that which will satisfy their manager (who is asking for ‘more’), for example. They’ll forego what they know is right and agree to do more. And for the manager, people agreeing to take on more is like that short term fix that a drug gives – it feels good (certainly better than the painful feeling of too much to do and no one committing to it). If you’re a manager having to show results in an environment with so many problems, the fix really helps – the team has committed to the work, and it will do whatever is needed to get it all done. Managers and the organization become addicted to ‘more’.

What is ‘more addiction’?

By ‘more addiction,’ I mean the condition of being compelled to commit to more – at any cost, without consideration for other things (like value, impact, or the like). The addiction is powerful – so powerful that even senior managers and leaders fall victim to it every day. Examples we’ve seen many times of the symptoms of ‘more addiction’:

  • Managers – even senior managers – having their teams disregard their own good practice of estimating and capacity planning in order to commit to everything. This results in an endless flow of unreliable estimates and slippage.

  • People afraid to even bring up or expose the need to make a tradeoff decision – due to the impression it would give to their managers (appearing as ‘unable to get it done,’ ‘not willing to do what’s necessary to get it all done,’ etc. ). We’ve even seen pretty senior (e.g., VP level) people fall victim to this – not sharing that the teams need to focus on the top priorities, and defer the lowest ones in order to get to successful release – instead sharing upwards ‘we’ll get it done.’

  • Large ‘death march’ initiatives trudging on over months and years, not questioning the objectives and plan and whether priorities have shifted, or attempting to define smaller increments of value, or identifying options that might bring them back on track. All the while they’re hemorrhaging talent due to being overworked and under-appreciated.

The power of the addiction comes ultimately from the fact that unwritten rules have been established in the organization by virtue of decisions to succumb to ‘more.’ When no one exposes the need to deprioritize work or pause an initiative to focus on the most important, then it is easy to form the belief that doing so will reflect poorly on them. And, the addiction is rarely discussed – if it is even recognized.

‘More’ begets more.

Finally, the addiction feeds upon itself. The downsides explored earlier create conditions under which the problem gets ever worse – creating a cycle that has some similarities with common views of the substance abuse cycle.

It’s about value, values, and fear.

There are deeper things at work than just difficulty prioritizing. More addiction happens primarily in organizations that are predisposed to it – those that don’t have an appreciation for or understanding of value. Without understanding value, how to identify it, how to measure it, and the like, people are left measuring what they can – things like ‘how much was built’. It may be that your org needs help with what it values in general – or in the case of companies with great espoused values (see the impressive values poster on the office wall), overcoming the barriers to living up to those values.

Ultimately, our inquiry and analysis seem to point to a common culprit: fear.

Whether it’s fear of looking bad, upsetting your boss, not making your numbers, saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to someone, or something else, fear seems to be what preserves the addiction.

‘More’ to Come…

No pun intended. Well, maybe a little intended. We’ve only brushed the surface on this topic, which is one that becomes even more important in times when we have fewer people to get the work done. In subsequent articles, I hope to expand more on ‘more addiction’- for example, further examining the impacts, sensing it, causes of it, who’s responsible (and who’s not), fear underlying it, and more importantly, strategies to combat it. For now, I’d love to hear feedback, comments, horror stories, success stories, and more here.